By Mark Fairlie

US tech company Tesla has come under fire from critics after releasing details of the crash of their self-driving which killed a man last month. The company has confirmed that, at the time of the collision on March 23rd, the car had been operating on Autopilot.

Tesla release information on the crash

In their initial update on the crash, Tesla confirmed that the driver of the sport-utility Model X – 38-year-old Apple software engineer Wei Huang – had passed away.

Whilst the details of the crash were not yet known at the time of the press release because the car was still too damaged to recover the vehicle’s logs, the company were able to state the reason for the severity of the collision.

“The reason this crash was so severe is that the crash attenuator, a highway safety barrier which is designed to reduce the impact into a concrete lane divider, had either been removed or crushed in a prior accident without being replaced,” Tesla wrote.

The company added that they had never seen this level of damage to a Model X in any other crash.

Upon the retrieval of the logs from the computer inside the car, the company were able to learn more about the cause of the crash. In a blog post published on 30th March, Tesla said that the vehicle had in fact been operating on Autopilot when it crashed.

Are self-driving cars safe?

Tesla confirmed in the post that the car’s driver

“had received several visual and one audible hands-on warning earlier in the drive, and the driver’s hands were not detected on the wheel for six seconds prior to the collision.

“The driver had about five seconds and 150 meters of unobstructed view of the concrete divider … but the vehicle logs show that no action was taken.”

Tesla has said in the past that their Autopilot feature is designed to keep speed, change lanes, and even self-park, however, drivers are required to keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road in order to prevent accidents.

The Tesla crash comes only a few weeks after a pedestrian was struck and killed during a test drive of Uber’s self-driving SUV in Arizona.

By Don McCullough from Santa Rosa, CA, USA (Tesla Model X front view) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia CommonsWhilst there is a lot of controversy over the safety of self-driving vehicles to both drivers and pedestrians, Tesla has argued that these vehicles are still considerably more safe than other cars.

In the March 30th update, they stated that there is

“one automotive fatality every 86 million miles across all vehicles from all manufacturers. For Tesla, there is one fatality, including known pedestrian fatalities, every 320 million miles in vehicles equipped with Autopilot hardware”.

They also said that cars equipped with Tesla’s Autopilot hardware are 3.7 times less likely to be involved in a fatal accident than other vehicles. Whilst these cars cannot prevent all accidents, Autopilot makes them much less likely to occur.

Criticism over the information release

Federal investigators are still looking into the California crash, as well as an accident in January of a Tesla Model S that may have also been operating under the Autopilot system. However, Tesla has been criticised for making the information about the crash public.

Chris O’Neil, a spokesman for the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), said the agency was “unhappy with the release of investigative information by Tesla,” but that the company had been cooperating well in assisting the NTSB with the vehicle data.

The spokesman went on to say that the board were looking into all aspects of the Model X crash including the driver’s previous concerns about the autopilot, adding that the agency is working to “determine the probable cause of the crash”.

The NTSB usually update information regarding their investigations in a preliminary report a few weeks following the completion of fieldwork. The fact that Tesla has released details of the crash so early has caused a backlash from the NTSB.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk responded to the criticisms on Twitter on Monday, saying he had a “lot of respect for NTSB, but [National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] regulates cars, not NTSB, which is an advisory body”.

He justified the company’s decision to make the information public, stating “Tesla releases critical crash data affecting public safety immediately & always will. To do otherwise would be unsafe.”